WWE champion Jinder Mahal looked every bit the dastardly pro wrestler Tuesday night, striking an imposing 6-foot-5 figure in a tan suit and black turban and bellowing insults about his rival, fan favorite Shinsuke Nakamura. Smiling slyly, however, the mood changed for some at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., when Mahal, WWE’s first champion of Indian descent, opened his mouth.
“You always ‘rook’ the same,” Mahal said during the live “SmackDown” telecast, mocking his Japanese opponent’s facial expressions and accent.
“They call you Mr. Miyagi,” he later added referring to a Japanese character in “The Karate Kid,” as he and the Singh Brothers, his two lackeys who accompanied him to the ring, laughed hysterically and mimed martial arts poses.
The audience didn’t know quite how to respond to Mahal, whose real name is Yuvraj Singh Dhesi and whose material is scripted. If this was an attempt to paint the champion as a hypocrite, following months of him courting boos by accusing American audiences of xenophobia and jingoism, which he also did on Tuesday, it didn’t seem to land.
“That’s racist,” spectators could be heard shouting as Mahal delivered the lines. Later in Mahal’s five-minute spiel, fans collaborated to chant, “That’s too far!”
“WWE should have never approved this,” 15-year-old Noumaan Faiz, who was in the audience, said in an email to The Washington Post, adding the bit left “a bad taste” in the audience’s mouth.
“Racism is definitely an idiotic way to get heat and not necessary,” said Faiz, who’s been watching WWE programming for more than a decade. “It also makes the writers look bad.”
Fans on Twitter watching from home also expressed concerns over the material, which many saw as racist.
Not everyone was outraged, however, including Fernando Padilla, 33, who was also in the audience Tuesday as the chants broke out.
“I’m a longtime wrestling fan and I just saw it as a show,” Padilla said in a phone interview, noting that as a Latino he was just happy to see two minorities vying for a top WWE title.
Padilla said he interpreted the chants more as routine heckling of a heel, or bad guy, and not as an offended reaction. He also said the “diverse crowd” around him didn’t seem uncomfortable with Mahal’s words either because “that’s kind of what you expect from WWE.”
“Some of it’s kind of cringeworthy,” he added, pointing specifically to a mid-aughts trio of Mexican wrestlers that WWE branded “The Mexicools” and had ride out to the ring on lawn mowers.
More than being offensive or simply just tired, the biggest problem about bits that rely on racism or offensive stereotypes is that it shifts the heat from the performer to the company, which could affect its bottom line, according to Dave Meltzer, who founded the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which covers the industry, in 1980.
“Wrestling was always in its own little world,” said Meltzer, 57. “Now everyone watches it, and you can’t get away with those kind of old tricks. The fan base will blame it on the company and not on the heel.”
“It’s an embarrassing thing [for WWE],” Meltzer added, noting the segment, which he called “really bad TV” made him feel more sympathetic for Mahal for having to deliver the uninspiring lines. “Nobody wants to be called racist.”
This is not the first time WWE has dealt with allegations of racism, and not just in the ring. The company has confronted several obstacles in recent years as it attempts to become more inclusive. One of the biggest turned out to be its marquee star, Hulk Hogan, who in 2015, was caught on tape referring to black people using racial epithets. The company cut ties with Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, and today there remains no trace of Hogan, who helped build the brand in the 1980s, on WWE’s website or product lines.
WWE addressed the controversy at the time, noting in a widely circulated statement the company “is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”
This celebration, however, does not always translate to the ring as demonstrated Tuesday. Part of that may have to do with the history of the industry, according to Meltzer.
“The foreign heel goes back to 1900 or so, so it’s not anything new,” Meltzer said. “It’s easy and it kind of works when you do it the right way. … Heels would play on that ethnicity and you’d go as far as you could. I don’t want to say wresting was built on it, but it was big part of wrestling for decades and decades.”
This problem is hardly unique to WWE, but it happens around the world and sometimes even more shockingly. In 2009, for example, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Japan’s version of WWE, used Nazi imagery on some of its promotional material.
The poster prompted an outcry at the time and was eventually redesigned.
Almost a decade later, those most shocking tactics appear to be dying out, especially in the United States, as people’s expectations have evolved amid a changing landscape, where stories involving race relations continue to make daily national headlines. For example, 10 years ago predates the Black Lives Matter movement, the Charlottesville rally that resulted in the death of one anti-fascist protester and the election of President Trump, who has struggled at times to distance himself from white supremacist groups. Even as Tuesday night’s “Smackdown” aired, protests continued in St. Louis pertaining to the acquittal of a white police officer who shot and killed a black driver.
“People are different, the product is different and society is different,” Meltzer said. “You look at stuff that was done even 15-20 years ago, and a large percentage of it, you’d go, you could never do that now.”
“I see this reaction as another example as to why they’ll be very careful not to do it again,” Meltzer added.
Of that, however, one can’t be too sure. When reached for comment, WWE said in a statement, “Just like many other TV shows or movies, WWE creates programming with fictional personalities that incorporates real world issues and sensitive subjects.”
Separating creative from corporate, WWE added, echoing nearly verbatim what it said following the Hogan scandal, “As a producer of such TV shows, WWE Corporate is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”
Correction: This article was updated to correct an error about whom Hulk Hogan was referring to in his racist rant. He used a racial slur to describe a black man his daughter was dating, not a fellow wrestler.